Travelers pose at Y3llow Submarine guesthouse in Hongdae before they take a tour around Seoul on Friday. (The Korea Herald/Chung Hee-cho)
Seoul’s Hongdae community has no shortage of tourist charms: Urban arts, indie music, lively nightlife and unique cafes and restaurants. A new attraction has been added recently ― cheap, convenient and good-quality accommodations.
Guesthouses, offering a night’s stay at prices as low as 18,000 won ($15), have been sprouting up in back alleys and corners of the popular youth hangout in western Seoul over the past few years.
“Backpackers from around the world started to trickle into the Hongdae area from about six or seven years ago,” said Kim Bada, who has been running Backpackers Mr. Sea since 2008.
“In the first few years of business, my guests were mostly Europeans, but now they are replaced by Asians, many of whom are Hallyu fans,” he said.
Hongdae refers to Hongik University, renowned for its arts school.
As the artsy university neighborhood began emerging as a mecca for international travelers, Kim saw an explosive increase in the number of competitors.
“Nearly 100 new places opened up in the past two to three years. We’re in a bit of a supply glut now,” he said.
For travelers, it means more choices and better services, making Hongdae an even more attractive place to unpack.
Above all, the location is what makes it stand out.
“It is so easy to get to places from Hongdae. I never had a problem,” said Asma El maslohi, a tourist from France.
The Hongdae area is not far from Seoul’s must-visit tourist sights such as the Myeongdong shopping district, Namdaemum Market and Seoul Station, where buses and trains linking the capital to rural cities depart. It is also accessible by subway from the two main airports.
“Hongdae is definitely the place to stay for tourists whether they are planning to travel in or out of Seoul,” Kim Boa, the owner of BOA guesthouse, said.
“The Airport Express Train will take less than 50 minutes to get to Hongik Univ. Subway Station from Incheon International Airport and it only takes about six minutes to get to Seoul Station from Hongdae.”
Korea’s “first-generation” guesthouses, which started operation in the late 1990s and early 2000s, targeted foreigners seeking reasonably priced bed-and-breakfasts in a traditional Korean home setting. Many of the owners converted their own homes into guest facilities, while continuing to live there.
This created a unique ambience for tourists, a tradition that many of Hongdae’s new guesthouses try to carry on.
Jonathan Nokes from Australia said he appreciates the quiet, homely atmosphere his host has been providing.
“The host spent the whole day showing us different places. We went out last night for dinner and drinks,” Nokes said.
“I really feel like I am at a friend’s place,” he said.
Guesthouse managers or staff hanging out with their guests at pork restaurants or karaoke is not a rare sighting around Hongdae.
Opry Catherine from Switzerland said she prefers guesthouses to hotels and other types of accommodations mainly because of the family-like atmosphere.
“You might not be able to build such a bond with managers and travelers at hotels,” said the 25-year-old fan of Korean dramas and movies. She has visited the country four times.
For Esther Oh, a nurse from Australia, the availability of various different types of rooms and their affordable prices were the main reason behind her decision to stay in Hongdae.
“As I was looking up online for accommodation, I came across the guesthouses in Hongdae and I knew it was perfect,” said Oh, who was in Seoul with four family members to visit relatives.
“So far, we are all very happy with our stay because it is inexpensive while it provides hotel-like services.”
Hongdae guesthouses offer various types of rooms from a one-bed room to a dormitory room which can accommodate up to eight people. They cost as little as 18,000 won up to 110,000 won per night depending on the room type.
Studio rooms, which are equipped with a private bathroom, kitchenette and washing machine, are also in growing supply.
“Americans or Europeans do not mind sharing a room with others while Japanese people prefer studio rooms for privacy,” said Kim Seong-ha who works at the guesthouse Studio 41st.
Jirapa Junsirikulchai, an ardent K-Pop fan from Thailand, said, “A lot of Hallyu fans choose to stay in a guesthouse because most of us travel alone and don’t need a room with more than a bed.”
Almost all guesthouses provide free Wi-Fi, a shared kitchen and washing machines and some places even provide free international calls and serve homegrown vegetables and organic food.
“We often help guests with online shopping and keep their purchases for them. Some foreigners order a bunch of music albums,” said B Choi, a manager at Studio 41st.
Nightlife is another attraction drawing tourists to Hongdae, home to some of the country’s trendiest clubs.
“I heard a lot of things about Hongdae’s nightlife so I looked for a guesthouse in Hongdae area,” said Daniel Swader from the U.S.
Most guesthouses are located a short walk from the bustling center of nighttime activity, allowing guests to rest after enjoying the late-night culture.
“Everything is open even at 4 a.m. The Hongdae area is relatively safer than other regions in Europe or South America,” said Thomas Dachner from Germany.
There exists some risk in guesthouses, though rare, as strangers stay together under one roof.
In May, a Japanese tourist reported to the police that she was sexually assaulted by a man while she was staying at one of the guest accommodations there. The case is currently being investigated by the police.
Guesthouse owners, however, said that they have rules to prevent any such incidences.
“We give our guests individual keycards to the entrance door and the door of their rooms. We also do not allow alcohol consumption in the rooms after 11 p.m. I hope that people don’t instantly think that all guesthouses are dangerous,” Kim, the owner of the BOA guesthouse, said.